Roger Ballen Centre for Photographic Art

WORDS Graham Wood IMAGES Marijke Willems PRODUCTION Klara van Wyngaarden

The new Roger Ballen Centre for Photographic Arts in Forest Town, Johannesburg has been designed by architect Joe van Rooyen as a new home for the world-renowned photographer and his medium.

What might a Roger Ballen building look like? The legendary photographer’s work is known for its psychologically dark, surreal and disturbing qualities. He first found fame nearly four decades ago, documenting outsiders in small South African towns and on the platteland, and caused controversy with his unflinchingly grotesque, often freakish representations of the people he encountered. Moving away from documentary photography, he then took the medium on a journey inwards, combining mysterious tableaux, stark theatrical sets and props with elements of performance and art brut. In the process, he developed what can now only be described as a “Ballenesque” aesthetic, and found international renown.

But short of a stripped-out, derelict rural cottage or an abandoned asylum – the kind of architecture his work tends to haunt – it’s difficult to imagine how the Ballenesque vision might translate into architecture. That job fell to Joe van Rooyen of JVR Architects – and the result is, perhaps surprisingly, beautiful.

Roger Ballen Centre for Photographic Art
An installation at the entrance of the Roger Ballen Centre for Photographic Arts from his personal selection – part of his early experiments with display in his new space before its official opening later this year.

The centre needed to be multifaceted, incorporating an office and the admin functions of Roger’s work, including his foundation for the advancement of photography and other art forms, a space for group exhibitions of painting, installation and other arts, and an archive, all with the flexibility to accommodate any other ideas that crop up.

The Ballen Centre completes a trio of cultural centres along Jan Smuts Avenue, joining the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation and the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre nearby, and giving the primarily suburban area a clearer public character.

Looking for more art or architectural inspiration? Read about Jan Ernst’s partnership with Galerie Philia.